Life a Daily Struggle for Arizona’s Homeless Seniors Living in ‘The Zone’

By Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.
September 19, 2022 Updated: September 21, 2022

PHOENIX—Never in all of Pam Bejarano’s 70 years could she imagine herself old and homeless in a place like “The Zone.”

As Bejarano tried to catch her breath in the stifling heat of downtown Phoenix, her fiance, James, 65, sat barefoot and shirtless in long white hair and beard, wearing summer shorts inside the couple’s frayed pup tent on 12th Avenue.

Their “bed” was little more than a thin pad and no pillows.

Twelve years ago, before landing in The Zone, Bejarano suffered a heart attack. She has other medical problems as well—a bad knee and back. James had a stroke after the two met and is battling high blood pressure.

Epoch Times Photo
Pam Bejarano, 70, has been living in “The Zone,” a growing homeless encampment in Phoenix, for months. She’s had just about everything stolen from her, including her heart medication. Here, she sits in the blistering sun on Sept. 18 on a medical scooter. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Both are on life-saving medications—all recently stolen by their homeless neighbors, as well as their bank cards, wallets, and clothing. Neither has access to the savings accounts that contain all their Social Security income until the bank resolves the problem.

The couple has nothing but each other and their two service chihuahuas with whom they refuse to part.

“At our age,” living in The Zone is a nightmare, Bejarano said.

“I’m an old hippie. I used to smoke pot when it was still illegal. That was decades ago. But they’re smoking these [fentanyl laced] ‘blues’ that stink, making them so violent and crazy. I don’t see the kick. You smoke a joint; you get hungry. You laugh a lot. This other stuff …”

Beyond Skid Row

Hardened drug users aren’t the only problem that homeless seniors face each day in The Zone, which sprawls across an area several blocks square and is home to an estimated 1,000 people—up to 40 percent of whom are senior citizens.

Bejarano said there’s the daily harassment by young street predators and gang members selling drugs, callous treatment by armed security personnel, and indifference from police officers.

The general lack of sanitary conditions worsens the situation, as the trash keeps piling up on the streets and sidewalks, bringing vermin and disease.

Bejarano said there are social services within a city block of The Zone, but there aren’t enough to meet the increasing number of newcomers, many of them elderly.

The homeless encampment continues to expand with no end—row upon row of pitched tents and desperate people walking around or on bicycles.

“I never imagined it would be this bad down here. There are more drugs than there are on the streets,” Bejarano told The Epoch Times.

In June, a “very dishonest” landlord kicked Bejarano and her fiance out of their Phoenix apartment when they couldn’t pay their rent. However, money had been tight long before then.

Epoch Times Photo
A row of tents on 12th Street in Phoenix in an area known as “The Zone” on Sept. 18. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

As with other impoverished seniors on fixed incomes, the couple migrated to The Zone, where they found temporary shelter. Soon, the shelter staff told them to leave because of their dogs.

“Now, they’re tightening inside and throwing us all out on the street. Stupid little things,” Bejarano said. “Now, we find our dogs need vaccinations. We can’t get information on it.”

The couple kept within The Zone to be near the Health and Human Services Campus and various other social safety nets such as Andre House and the Chaplaincy for the Homeless.

As Phoenix’s homelessness crisis worsens, tent cities such as The Zone have begun to crop up in other communities, says Darwin Campbell, executive director of the Chaplaincy for the Homeless, which was founded in 1988.

“It’s happening as a result of what you might call raised rents and also an economy that is not paying folks what they need to survive—especially our elderly people,” Campbell said.

“It creates a whole new environment, a whole new underbelly—an underbelly economy. That underbelly economy doesn’t run like a regular economy. The underbelly economy is like, ‘You got it. I want it. So I take it by any means necessary.’

Epoch Times Photo
Clarence Carter, 65, walks around his tent keeping it clean on Sept. 18. Carter has been living in The Zone, a homeless encampment in Phoenix, since November after his wife died. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Clarence Carter, 65, walks around his tent keeping it clean on Sept. 18. Carter has been living in The Zone, a homeless encampment in Phoenix, Ariz., since November after his wife died. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

The underbelly economy is mainly about survival, Campbell told The Epoch Times.

“Many people don’t understand how the streets function. That’s how it is. It’s about survival.”

It’s also about money, Bejarano says.

She thinks the city of Phoenix has enough money to make bad situations such as The Zone disappear, but it’s been spent on “other things.”

Fed-up Residents Sue City

In August, a group of Phoenix residents sued the city over a failure of policies dealing with The Zone.

“This case is about the city of Phoenix’s failure to address—and its exacerbation of—the growing homelessness crisis within the city,” the suit argues.

The Zone had grown even before the pandemic shut down many local businesses, tripling since 2016, according to the suit. As many as 500 homeless residents died in and around Phoenix during the first half of 2022, most from drug use. At least 50 were homicide victims.

“Five hundred deaths sounds conservative to me,” said Alejandro Arvizu, 45, an electrician who lost his job during the pandemic and became homeless in The Zone last year.

The irony is that Arvizu was an essential worker, having daily contact with many people, some of whom had COVID. He only got sick after his second Moderna shot three weeks later.

“I’ve always thought COVID was a sham. I still think it’s a sham,” Arvizu told The Epoch Times. “I had been COVID-free for 10 months and worked as an electrician. Then, things changed at work, and we had to get our COVID shot.

“I think getting the shots was such a terrible mistake.”

Epoch Times Photo
A fine mist helps to keep things cool in The Zone on Sept. 18, where temperatures had reached over 90 degrees before noon. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Before his injections, his family refused to see him or let him into their homes, claiming, “Oh, you’re the Devil.”

“They invited me to go back home,” Arvizu said, “but I want to do it on my merit—on my own two feet.”

He started working again as an electrician and hopes to save enough money to move into an apartment soon.

“My rent [in The Zone] is perfect zero. But that helps me to save my money. It’s really hard to have things here. There are many thieveries, so you’ve got to have anything in the bank. Anything you carry, you’re going to lose.

“I know people who’ve had their things stolen. They called the police and the police didn’t come. That makes it tough. A lot of people don’t believe the word of the homeless.”

Arvizu said it would be “nice” if the city hired more street sweepers and placed more trash cans in The Zone.

“This is unhealthy—unsanitary,” he said.

Hard to Rise Back Up

Arvizu said there are  “quite a few seniors” who live in The Zone and “quite a few veterans,” though many of them get the short end of the stick “way too often.” He said that not having a physical address can be a major deterrent to finding employment for a senior.

That means it’s going to be that much harder getting out of The Zone—if at all.

Clarence Carter, 65, had spent most of his life working as a forklift driver and carpenter, becoming homeless in November after his wife died, which slashed their joint Supplementary Security Income benefits in half.

“I wasn’t able to keep up the rent and take both [financial responsibilities] on,” he told The Epoch Times.

He now lives in a tent near the Chaplaincy, sweeping sand around his perimeter to keep busy and maintain cleanliness and a sense of dignity.

Epoch Times Photo
Homeless residents browse through donated clothing during a program run by the Chaplaincy for the Homeless, a charitable organization working with the homeless in The Zone on Sept. 18. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“This is where I live now. It’s a struggle. It strengthens your faith in God, but it’s a struggle every day. You may hit the ground, but it can only get worse. There’s no simple way to put it.”

He said the worst part is the sense of having little control over his life at the moment and the despair that goes with living in The Zone.

“All I can do is try is make the situation brighter. I did [have hope]. Right now, I don’t.”

Having four sons who try to help tells him, “at least I know somebody is out there, somewhere, that cares a little bit.”

City officials point to budget allocations in 2022 to address the rising tide of homelessness in Maricopa County as progress, citing the $50 million the city spent on shelters, affordable housing, and mental health services.

The Phoenix City Council approved $70.5 million in affordable housing and homelessness programs.

Epoch Times Photo
A homeless man enjoys a quiet moment in a chapel inside The Zone in downtown Phoenix, on Sept. 18. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

In the meantime, a statewide Housing Supply Committee is holding meetings seeking public input on ways to resolve Arizona’s housing shortage.

Despite these efforts, the homelessness situation in Phoenix, particularly among the elderly, only seems to be getting worse.

On Aug. 11, Phoenix Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari responded to “The Zone” lawsuit, saying in a letter she was “not at all shocked to see this lawsuit” given an “unmanageable condition.”

Ansari envisions a more regional approach to resolving homelessness than reliance on a struggling Human Services Campus model.

The concentration of homeless people near The Zone is growing because “it is the only place in the valley where help is visibly located,” she said.

“We must move away from this model, as it clearly isn’t working.”

A Crisis Without End?

Campbell said homelessness would continue to be a problem until people finally decide it has to end.

“Our emphasis as of late has been with the elderly because the elderly are being evicted at high rates. It’s a real problem,” Campbell said.

“We won’t quit until everyone has a home.

“They don’t see the homeless as deserving to be raised to the level of humanity. And that’s what strikes me [as] funny. It gets me upset.”

Officials at Arizona’s Department of Human Services and the state’s Department of Economic Security didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

Allan Stein
Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.